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Holding charter schools accountable

The Baltimore City school system stands out in Maryland for its willingness to try new approaches to education. With 33 public charter schools, 14 transformation campuses and several other contractor-operated schools, the system leads the state in embracing innovation.

The city school system has recently reviewed and made recommendations for 25 charter and contract schools, a process that clearly demonstrated that innovation can create better outcomes for children. But innovative models must also demonstrate that they are getting results.

That was made clear last week when Baltimore schools CEO Andrés A. Alonso recommended that the Board of School Commissioners not renew the operating contracts of six of these "schools of choice" — schools that are run by independent operators under contracts with the school system.

Under his recommendation, three charter schools, one transformation school and two other operator-run schools — out of a total of 25 reviewed — would not have their contracts renewed when they expire at the end of this school year. Three other schools would receive one-year extensions of their contracts while additional data are reviewed.

Mr. Alonso's recommendations grew out a thorough review of these schools by the New and Charter School Advisory Board, made up of school system employees, parents and representatives of outside groups.

That review, in which I took part, found despite the best efforts of many hardworking people, the six schools whose contracts are not being renewed are not delivering the high-quality education all students deserve.

If upheld by the school board, these recommendations will be painful for many families and school staff members. But these sorts of tough decisions should also reassure the community that reform for its own sake is not enough. The message will be that new approaches or new operators may sound good, but unless they deliver a high-quality education to Baltimore students, they will not last. Our children get only one shot at an education, and we cannot allow schools to continue to fail.

This was the first renewal review process in three years, and it was far more rigorous and thoughtful than those used in the past. A work group, with support from local foundations and the nonprofit I head, Supporting Public Schools of Choice, helped to develop this better system.

In this renewal process, the advisory board developed recommendations for each school, based on an overall rating in three areas: academics, school climate, and governance and fiscal management. Those ratings were based on a range of quantitative and qualitative data, including state test scores and other test data, surveys and an extensive school visit. Teachers and school leaders were interviewed and classes were observed.

Based on those findings, we developed recommendations. Many schools are recommended for five-year renewals, a full vote of confidence in their work. Other schools have been recommended for three-year renewals — to ensure they continue to make progress.

During the review process, we found some common themes. For example, successful schools were clear on their mission: what they were trying to achieve and how to measure it. Unsuccessful schools typically lacked a clear, strategic vision. Successful schools also tended to have higher parent engagement.

It's critical that people involved in education reform in Baltimore look carefully at the findings from this renewal process and consider how they can advance public education in the city.

First, let's look at the review process itself and identify ways to improve it next year. There may well be better ways of examining and assessing the widely divergent educational missions that our charter schools are pursuing. They are not using a cookie-cutter approach, so a more flexible review process may be needed.

We also need to do a better job of making the information gleaned during the renewal process available to the public, especially to parents looking for the right school option. It is encouraging that the school system has posted the renewal and site visit reports on its website; these provide valuable information to the community about how the schools are operating.

Looking ahead, are there ways to share the more innovative practices seen in the review process and replicate the work of the best operators? How can we generate more parent involvement, like that seen in the most successful schools? What are the lessons for prospective school operators seeking to establish a strong school? And how can we create an environment that better supports charter and other innovative schools to increase the number of high-quality education options for our children?

These are not easy questions. But the success we achieved in this year's renewal process gives me hope that we can pull together and continue to make strides for our kids.

Carol Beck is director of Supporting Public Schools of Choice and a member of the Baltimore New and Charter School Advisory Board. Her email is carol@supportingpublicschools.org.

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